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High School Course-Taking and Educational Reform

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The current debate about the condition of American public schools is reminiscent of the opening lines of Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities--these are either the best of times or the worst of times. After surveying a wide range of studies and reports Gerald Bracey, for example, declares that American "schools are performing as well or better than ever. ... '' Following a similar survey, David Berliner declares that "the American school system, as a whole, has been and continues to be a remarkable success.'' John Chubb and Terry Moe, on the other hand, point to dismal student performance on numerous indicators and maintain that American schools are in terrible shape, and specifically claim that the highly touted "excellence reforms'' of the 1980's "are destined to fail.'' Each side accuses the other of distorting the historical record in order to advance a brazen political agenda, either the discrediting and dismantling of public education, as Mr. Bracey and other "revisionists'' see it, or the defense of an obdurate and incompetent governmental monopoly, as supporters of choice maintain.

While much of this debate is inspired by deep partisan and philosophical differences, at least some of the assumptions upon which the participants base their arguments can be tested by empirical, historical research. Such research cannot definitively answer whether these are the best or worst of times in American education, but it can illuminate whether certain aspects of the system are getting better, getting worse, or simply drifting without direction. We recently completed a study for the U.S. Education Department's office of educational research and improvement about national trends in high school course-taking that offers some insights into these issues. Our study, which looks at a series of national surveys of high school course-taking from 1928 to 1973 and transcript studies from 1982 and 1990, reveals that neither side in the current debate has accurately understood the trends in secondary education.

Contrary to the revisionist claim, for example, things are not better than ever in our high schools, if by better they mean that students are taking more rigorous, academic courses than previous generations. In fact, American secondary students are taking fewer academic courses than were students in the late 1920's and, we believe, many of the academic courses they are taking are academic in name only. The American high school still serves as a custodial institution for large numbers of students whose education is second rate at best. Nevertheless, critics of public schools have also erred by failing to note that the "excellence'' movement of the 1980's has resulted in significant improvements on the secondary level. Such reforms as tougher high school graduation requirements have prompted secondary students to take substantially more academic courses in the past decade. Contrary to the arguments put forth by advocates of choice, the supposedly intractable American educational system can, in fact, be changed for the better.

Specifically, our study indicates that in three key areas scholars on both sides in this debate have an inadequate understanding of the history of secondary education, and consequently neither side supports reforms that truly can make a difference in American high schools. With apologies to Edgar Allen Poe, we label these three areas, The Pendulum, The Pit, and The Masque of the Dreaded Dropout.

  • The Pendulum. Probably no metaphor is as widely accepted by educational historians and policymakers as the one that sees 20th-century educational reform as a series of pendulum-like swings between two distinct curricular philosophies. This metaphor describes the American curriculum in the 1950's swinging between the relevance-based life-adjustment movement and the rigorous academic demands of post-Sputnik reforms. In the 1960's, the pendulum swung away from tough academics and toward the freewheeling open classroom. Then in the 1970's, the pendulum swung again toward a no-nonsense, academic, back-to-basics curriculum. David Berliner points to these trends as evidence that current criticism of public schools is simply another manifestation of conservative, business-led bashing of public education and teachers similar to what occurred in the 1950's and 1970's. Messrs. Chubb and Moe, on the other hand, see the same pendulum-like swings as evidence that politically dominated schools cannot be effectively changed because each new wave of reform institutionalizes its agenda, ossifying the system so that meaningful restructuring is impossible.

Our study finds little evidence that these pendulum-like waves of curricular reform had a substantial impact on secondary education. We draw a clear distinction between the rhetoric of school reform and the reality of student course-taking. Rhetorically, 20th-century school reform has swung between the curricular options noted above, with one side or the other dominating the debate. Our data, however, demonstrate that until the mid-1970's these rhetorical swings had little impact on student course-taking in high schools. Rather, what occurred from the late 1920's to the early 1970's was a steady, unbroken decline in the percentage of tough academic courses (including English, foreign languages, math, science, and social studies) taken by high school students and a corresponding increase in the percentage of less demanding, non-academic courses (including physical education, health, and vocational education).

In the mid-1970's, that decline began to reverse as high school students increased the percentage of academic course-taking for the first time in almost half a century. Throughout the 1980's that trend gained momentum (due to such factors as the publication of A Nation at Risk), and by 1990 a full-fledged shift toward greater academic course-taking was under way. In other words, the revisionist view of a curricular pendulum responding to periodic conservative attacks, or the pro-choice view of the pendulum swinging toward whatever educational fad dominates the national debate, appears to have little basis in reality. What we are left with is a very different picture of curricular change, a picture that reveals two trends that have been virtually unacknowledged by educational historians and policymakers--the first, nearly half a century of curricular dilution and unequal education opportunities, and the second, a fairly recent movement toward increased academic education and curricular equality.

  • The Pit. Unlike the pendulum metaphor, which we believe inaccurately represents trends in educational reform, the pit provides an apt description of developments in the middle of this century. The pit refers to the steady, unbroken drop in the amount of academic course-taking that occurred between 1928 and 1973. In 1928, over 67 percent of the courses taken by American students were academic in nature. Six years later, the amount of academic course-taking had dropped to slightly more than 62 percent. Over the next two decades, the percentage of academic courses taken by U.S. high school students continued to fall from just over 59 percent in 1949 to 57 percent in 1961, and then returned to over 59 percent in 1973. We believe these changes were due largely to the prejudices of school leaders and to the prevailing educational philosophy that saw the differentiated curriculum as the key to providing "equal educational opportunity'' for students of diverse abilities and interests. As high school enrollments increased during the Great Depression and postwar years, educational leaders assumed that this burgeoning student population was not as academically talented as previous generations of students. Consequently, educators channeled increasing numbers of students into undemanding, non-academic courses and revised the curriculum to dilute content and lower educational standards in academic courses, all in the name of "democratizing'' the high school. These curricular decisions, however, had a grossly unequal and undemocratic impact on working-class and black children who were beginning to attend high school in greater numbers during these years. These students were disproportionately assigned to non-academic tracks and courses.

The pit presents problems for both revisionist scholars and supporters of choice. These data on the decline in academic course-taking sharply challenge the revisionist contention that things have never been better. Clearly, so far as academic course-taking is concerned, things have been better. Indeed, as late as 1990, when the percentage of academic course-taking had improved to over 66 percent, the ratio of academic to non-academic courses still had not returned to 1928 levels. Thus, our data reveal that for over half a century large numbers of American high school students unquestionably received a second-rate education. Moreover, the very reforms that revisionists have frequently decried and that supporters of choice claim are ineffectual--higher standards and a tougher curriculum--are precisely what promises to pull students out of this curricular morass.

The specific problem the pit poses for supporters of choice is that since 1973, American students have slowly been moving toward a more respectable level of academic course-taking. Between 1973 and 1990, the percentage of academic course-taking jumped from over 59 percent to over two-thirds. The causes of this shift are varied, but they unquestionably include demands of parents for higher-quality education for their children, tougher high-school-graduation requirements set by state legislatures, and higher standards for student performance established by school districts. The substantial increase in the percentage of academic courses taken by American students in the past 20 years is as great as the decline that took place between 1928 and 1961. Contrary to the claims by Messrs. Chubb and Moe and other supporters of choice, thoughtful, politically based reform can have a dramatic, positive impact on public education in this country.

  • The Masque of the Dreaded Dropout. One of the most interesting phenomena our research into high school course-taking and curriculum change has illuminated is the ritualized invocation of the dropout whenever demands are made for tougher curricula and higher academic standards. The argument that raising standards will cause more students to drop out of high school is hoary with age, yet it dances with surprising agility decade after decade.

What are the facts? Is the specter of higher dropout rates validated by findings on the effects of academically oriented reform? Between 1973 and 1990, when higher standards and tougher graduation requirements were widely enacted and the percentage of academic course-taking jumped by over 10 percent, the national dropout rate declined from 15 percent to 13 percent. These numbers are even more impressive if we focus on minority students. Between 1982 and 1990, African-Americans and Hispanics increased their academic course-taking much more than whites and Asian-Americans. In 1982, only 28 percent of African-Americans and a quarter of Hispanic students took a regimen of four years of English, three years of social studies, and two years of math and science. By 1990, the percentages had risen to 72 percent and 70 percent respectively. The share of minority students taking three years each of math and science has risen even more dramatically, from 10 percent to 41 percent of black students and from 6 percent to a third of Hispanic students. Over the same period the dropout rate for black students fell from 18 percent to 14 percent, and for Hispanic students the dropout rate remained unchanged at about 32 percent. Moreover, during this time S.A.T. scores for both groups rose significantly, especially among students who took the most advanced academic courses. In short, demanding more academic coursework from students has contributed to improved student outcomes and has not led to an increase in the dropout rate. It is time for the National Education Association and other leading educational organizations to end their ritualized invocation of the threat of increased dropouts each time someone suggests that U.S. schools demand more from their students.

In all, our findings reveal a very different picture of educational reform and yield very different policy recommendations than those of either the revisionists or the supporters of choice. We are neither pleased with the general performance of American high schools nor are we ready to dismantle the system because of that poor performance. Our data clearly show that for most of this century large numbers of American high school students received an inferior education and that, in the last decade, that dismal trend has begun to reverse.

If the positive trend that we found is to continue, two things need to occur. First, the push for a national curriculum, national standards, and national assessment must not flag. The "excellence'' movement was effective precisely because parents, educators, and political leaders enacted reforms that demanded more academic courses for American high school students. Such reforms, however, can be and often are subverted by schools that offer courses such as Consumer Math which meet academic requirements but whose content remains largely non-academic. One way to avoid such developments is to clearly mandate the skills and knowledge that all students in all parts of the country must master. We are convinced that this is the only way to end gross curricular inequalities that currently exist in American schools.

Second, Americans need to recognize that the very partisan nature of the current educational controversies can have a devastating impact on efforts to achieve significant educational change. If revisionists continue to dismiss all criticism of the public schools as right-wing propaganda, and if supporters of choice reject what is positive about public schools as apologies for educational apparatchiks, meaningful debate disappears. Moreover, Democrats increasingly are adopting the revisionist line that the only thing wrong with public schools is a lack of funds or that nothing can be done about educational quality until all schools have equal resources. At the same time, Republicans increasingly have settled on choice as the one educational reform worth pursuing. In that atmosphere, building support for less extreme but clearly effective methods of educational reform becomes impossible.

David Angus is a professor of education and the chairman of the program in educational foundations at the University of Michigan. Jeffrey Mirel is an associate professor of education and the chairman of the faculty in educational foundations at Northern Illinois University. The study on which these opinions are based will soon appear as "Rhetoric and Reality: The American High School Curriculum, 1945-1990,'' in Historical Perspectives on Recent Educational Reforms, edited by Diane Ravitch and Maris Vinovskis (Johns Hopkins University Press, forthcoming).

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